NEWTOWN, Conn. – As this small Connecticut community continues to cope with the shock and grief of the Sandy Hook school tragedy, for one family the grief is all too familiar.
Pastor Rocky Veach leads a small evangelical congregation known as the Connections Church. A native of Connecticut, Veach takes pride in having started new church communities in several cities around the nation – including one in Littleton, Colo.
Near Veach’s Littleton church was Columbine, itself the scene of an earlier school massacre in April 1999. In that incident, two high-school seniors gunned down 12 students, a teacher and wounded an additional 21.
At the time, Veach believed he would never again experience such grief in his lifetime.
He was wrong.
For the father of 5 daughters, fading memories once again became vivid: “I am stunned, this is deja vu, very shocking when this happened.” he confessed.
“Newtown looks very much now like the way Columbine looked in 1999,” he added.
“It is perhaps more shocking here,” Veach told WND. “The community is small. The people think in a small way. Columbine was in a bigger city (an outlying suburb of Denver).
“We as a nation have become a bit callous about school shootings since Columbine,” Veach said. “But this has brought that sensitivity back, since the victims were so young.”
Veach and his small congregation had been holding weekly prayer sessions in front of Newtown’s Edmond Town Hall prior to the massacre.
In addition to church services on Sundays, the weekday gathering was a way to bring together congregants from around the region to simply mingle and discuss whatever was on their minds.
Since the school attack, those weekly meetings have become daily.
Every evening since Friday, Dec. 14, the day of the Sandy Hook massacre, just as the sun sets, Pastor Veach and about 18 of his congregants gather in Newtown to pray for the families of those who lost their lives and discuss what’s on their hearts.
“It is our way of showing the people of Newtown that we care … we feel,” Veach explained.
Weather, which has seen both driving rain and some snow, has had no impact. The prayer sessions go on. It is a stark contrast to the surrounding Christmas decorations and the air filled with the fragrance of burning yuletide logs coming from several quaint bed and breakfasts nearby.
“We come, we gather, it is also our way to begin the grieving process,” said Veach.
One congregant who wished to remain unidentified explained that Veach holds a special place among the community.
“The fact that the pastor experienced Columbine helps us in learning how to grieve,” he said.
Veach told WND the meetings are healing sessions: “They just want to be here. … It is a way of healing their hearts. The impact [of the massacre] has not settled in yet. People are busy right now. … We have been doing interviews all day long, for several days in a row. We have not fully rested. But I suspect when we do, we will think about it more deeply.”
The pastor expressed words of both hope and grim reality for the future: “People who have been affected here will have a place to turn because the community is so small. They won’t be alone. We will grow stronger. Suffering will make us stronger. The innocence, however, is gone. You will never again get into a school the way you once did.”